The phrases repeat in my head, a very insistent drumbeat aiding an oncoming headache.
“Damien stopped smoking for you.”
“He’s got it bad.”
“Man, he’s actually smiling and joking.”
“Never seen him like this.”
Damien’s friends speak authoritatively. They laugh. Tease. Act as if they know me. They do know him.
He’s late and they talk freely about him. It’s all good-natured. They like him. They trust him.
I don’t know him.
He said “now.” Was that self-protection? How could I blame him? If he’d uttered “always,” I would have fled. Because I don’t know how I feel. Was it three weeks ago, a month ago, maybe a bit more, that I was seconds from telling Dominic I loved him. Was that a lie?
I sip my beer. I pretend I get an incoming text. I mouth apologies that I don’t think sound too inane, place some bills on the table, although they wave me off, and then I am fleeing from the restaurant.
I push open the door and almost run into Damien.
He grabs my forearm to keep me from tumbling down the steps. He catches a glimpse of my face.
I shrug. I have no excuse ready. Not for him. “I got a text. I have to run.”
“Clare, tell me what’s wrong.”
I can’t meet his eyes. What if I saw the truth there? What if I saw that he truly cared about me? Wanted a life with me. What then?
Do people fall in and out of love that quickly? Do I fall in and out of love that quickly?
“You’re scaring me a bit,” he says and puts a finger under my chin.
I just can’t meet his eyes.
A couple approaches, but we’re blocking the door. Damien leads me to the side where a bougainvillea’s red blooms hang chaotically.
“I can’t talk right now. I need to think,” I say, still unable to look at him.
“Did someone say something to upset you?”
This time I do look at him. “Have you been telling me the truth?”
He frowns. “About?”
“I think so. Maybe if you told me . . .”
“I loved Dominic.”
“I know that.”
“Do I seem like a tap to you? Like I can just run hot and cold with the twist of a handle?”
“Clare, just a second . . .”
“I’m not. I can’t. I don’t know what you want from me.”
His fingertips caress the side of my face, so gently, so lovingly. “I’m not asking for anything, Clare. I haven’t, have I? All the time in the world is yours.”
I feel a tear slide down my cheek. Why am I so upset? It’s true. He’s never pressured me. Ever.
I look at him. Into those eyes that are so like Dominic’s but not.
“Look, I’ll just tell them I can’t stay for dinner. We’ll go somewhere and talk.”
“No, I don’t want you to miss the evening with your friends.”
“You’re my friend, too, Clare. Even if we never get to another level, I would hope we’ll still be friends. Just wait for a minute, ok?”
I nod and begin swiping at the tears on my face. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and hands it to me. I look from it to him. Guys still use these? It’s freshly laundered and smells like dryer sheets. He smiles and kisses me on the corner of my mouth, the way he does. Not quite boyfriend, more than friend.
A woman standing nearby, smoking a cigarette, glances at me. “That guy’s sex on a stick,” she says. She holds up her hands. “No personal knowledge. He just oozes sex appeal. And thank you very much—I don’t want details. I like to keep my fantasies alive and well in my head.”
She drops her cigarette and smashes the butt beneath her red pumps before entering the restaurant.
She’s made me smile. Damien sees my smile and relief relaxes his features.
“Calamity averted?” he asks softly.
“A little better perspective. Maybe the sky isn’t really falling.”
Side-by-side we walk down the street. Couples hold hands and kiss and laugh. A saxophone slurs notes of sexy jazz. Passion’s in the air. A part of me’s jealous, but another part, fragile like a gardenia bud, feels freedom. Damien slides his arm around my waist, a guide, a comfort, exerting no pressure as we engage the night.
end 9/25/2016 (2)